Ziguinchor, Senegal – Night fell and Boubacar Ba was hunting again in the forest outside his hometown of Mpak in southern Senegal. Then there was a bang, not from his rifle or any other hunter. Not the Senegalese army or even the rebels waging a war for secession in the area.
It was a land mine that blew off his right leg.
Ba strapped on a makeshift tourniquet, but when he stumbled onto his left leg, he soon discovered it was broken and collapsed back to the forest floor.
“If someone hears these mining accidents or an explosion, they can’t go on an adventure to see what happened,” Ba told Al Jazeera, without putting himself in danger. Alone, he crawled 10 miles (6.2 km) on his elbows to look for help.
That was in 2004.
The mine he had stepped on had faded into obscurity two decades earlier at the start of Senegal’s simmering civil war. These days, Ba walks with a slight limp, his prosthetic leg deftly hidden under his boubou and trousers.
The Ziguinchor region, along the porous border of the Gambia to the north and Guinea-Bissau to the south, contains the last fragments of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC). The armed movement was born in 1982 pushing for the independence of Casamance, the collective of regions located under the Gambia, which is enveloped by Senegal.
Since then, peace has largely returned to the Casamance – comprising the regions of Ziguinchor, Sedhiou and Kolda. A few strongholds of fractured rebel groups hold out near the border area, but elsewhere civilians mostly pass on without a second thought and tourists take to the beach in the seaside resort of Cap Skirring.
But there are still mines in too many villages. According to estimates by the Senegalese National Mine Action Center (CNAMS), the government agency responsible for mine clearance activities, about 49 to 170 hectares (120 to 420 acres) of land, mainly in the Ziguinchor region, are still at risk of being mined. . In addition to the physical risk from the munitions, the mines – planted by the Senegalese army and rebels – often cut people off from roads, schools or farmland.
“The socio-economic impact is real,” Emmanuel Sauvage, Senegalese country director at Humanity and Inclusion, an NGO contracted by CNAMS to conduct mine clearance operations, told Al Jazeera. “It affects the entire economy.”
Reports of civilian casualties first appeared in the 1990s, more than a decade after the start of the conflict. Estimates of the number killed or injured are difficult to establish.
The Senegalese Association of Mine Victims (ASVM) has 482 members on its list – mostly people who have been directly injured, but also ‘indirect victims’, such as family members who sometimes struggle economically after a breadwinner is killed or disabled. CNAMS estimates 453 civilian casualties and 157 dead. Incidents are isolated, but crop up from time to time: most recently six people were killed last year by a mine returning from Friday prayers.
In the village of Bassere, about 8 km from the border with Guinea-Bissau, Pierre Marie Badji swings his metal detector slowly over the barren, brown earth. Dressed in a sky-blue kevlar vest and face shield, he scans what was once a thick brush chewed up by a tank-like demining machine whose rotating claws eat away at the bushes, searching for explosives. Badji’s metal detector is silent, so he marks the area directly in front of him as clear and takes another step forward.
A few tens of meters further on, his colleague Papa Bourama Diedhiou is on his knees, slowly scraping away the dirt. His metal detector went off and now he continues to inspect, wondering what the blast zone would be if a mine did go off.
It’s an old can of sardines. He throws it away.
“If I find a mine, I’m happy,” he said. “I save lives.”
Located under towering baobab and kapok trees deep in one of Ziguinchor’s lush forests, Bassere was completely abandoned in 1990, though in recent years residents have begun to trickle back in. For a while, the Senegalese army set up an outpost here, although they left about 15 years ago. But when villagers returned, they found a plaque in the forest warning of mines. Mines found in nearby villages and at the abandoned school on the other side of town added to their fears.
“The forest has recaptured 80 percent of the village,” said Bassere resident Therese Sagna. “This year there was a lot of fruit in the forest that was spoiled because no one could reach it.”
Liboire Sagna, the village chief, said uncertainty about which areas are safe is preventing the rest of the village from retreating and making it impossible to build a school or clinic.
While the overall risk of having mines is small — just under 2 square kilometers (1.6 sq mi) at most, mostly in the Ziguinchor region, which covers 7,352 square kilometers (4,568 sq mi) — finding scattered mines in the regions dense, isolated forests can be a bit like finding needles in a haystack.
So far, the demining team, led by the non-governmental organization Humanity and Inclusion, has found nothing but sardine cans and old shell casings in Bassere. Charles Coly, the team leader, estimates it will take three months to clear the area.
A dormant conflict
Authorities in Dakar say the Casamance could be mine-free by 2026. But because demining teams can only work safely in areas without rebel presence, the plan’s success rests largely on the Senegalese army eliminating the elusive rebel camps that remain. The conflict is arguably Africa’s longest-running war, and total victory over a small band of ideologically driven fighters in heavily forested border areas is far from an easy task.
Ba, now the community leader at the ASVM, has been reaching out to rebels to convince them to allow mine clearance teams to enter their territory, as has Barham Thiam, director of CNAMS. But so far, both men say their rapprochement has been unsuccessful.
“I said to the man, okay, you want independence. If you get it, it would be difficult for your budget to find money to destroy mines and then find money to rehabilitate the victims,” Thiam said. “I somehow told him we work for you… If the government brings you a way, take it. A bridge, okay, whatever. A demining program – take it.”
The continued presence of the rebels also poses an existential threat to deminers. Nine years ago, Fatou Diaw was kidnapped along with some colleagues during a demining mission. She was held in a rebel camp in the countryside for a month until government negotiations led to the release of her and her female colleagues. The men were held for another month before finally being released.
“L [told them] we didn’t know [that area] was a red line – otherwise we wouldn’t have come there to work,” she says, unfazed as she dresses for the demining mission in Bassere all these years later. “We don’t work for the army,” she recalled to the rebels. “We work for the people.”
Given the chance, she thinks she can get the rebels to give up their mines – if not their other weapons or their cause – but “they are not easily convinced”.
Meanwhile recently peace agreementssuch as an agreement signed in August with a number of rebel groups along the Guinea-Bissau border, offer hope – but only applied to a few groups.
So the conflict simmers as rebels illegally smuggle timber and cannabis far into the countryside. But it bubbles over every now and then.
During a renewed offensive by the Senegalese army earlier this year, some 6,000 refugees fled to neighboring Gambia. Rather this month, three refugees were killed in a Senegalese drone strike. The Gambian government maintains that although the victims were registered as refugees, the strike took place on Senegalese territory, across the porous border. Gambian opposition politicians, meanwhile, have complained that the conflict is increasingly emanating from Senegal.
At home, the rebels are having a hard time. The circumstances that led to the uprising — land reform laws that transferred power into the hands of the Senegalese state, and an economic downturn — are ancient history for a population eroded by four decades of war.
Anyone under the age of 40 has experienced conflict all their lives. Those who took up arms in the 1980s could easily point to Casamance’s distance from Dakar – literally in terms of geography and figuratively in the lack of government investment – as serious grievances. Economic development projects – roads and bridges – and a new university in Ziguinchor have helped close those gaps.
For advocacy groups like the ASVM, where some members have lifelong disabilities, even physical rest cannot bring peace of mind until the mines are completely eradicated.
“Even if there is a final calm in the Casamance … we will continue to work,” said Souleymane Diallo, ASVM’s chief financial officer, who himself was missing a leg.